Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Coming back to blogging after some time off is a difficult thing. Looking for a subject that seems adequate for (re)breaking the ice can have a paralyzing effect, at least for me. Fortunately, the blogging gods provided me with a ready-made subject upon logging into my account for the first time since July. Highlighted in bright orange on my dashboard were the words "1 comment awaiting moderation"; eager to engage in conversation with my readership, I clicked through.

The comment was posted to an older piece I wrote on Pepsi's marketing of "slim" cans to women. My response to the introduction of a soft drink can that is, in the words of Pepsi's chief marketing officer, "a perfect complement to today's most stylish looks" could be called flippant at best. Which is why I was surprised to receive this comment months later:
Hate to even address a sociopath feminist, but guess what? Women will buy this garbage because they are morons. If the actual cognitive condition of your sisters causes you distress then start complaining to them directly (the ones who choose to buy the sugar water, not the company providing them their choice). But alas, your lack of personal boundaries will prevent you from doing that, borderline personality disordered as you are. Myself, I don't care what someone else drinks. I do care that individuals like yourself feel entitled to make judgmental comments about this. Curtail your entitlement to what goes into your own gullet dear.
Now, this comment basically had the impact of providing a moment of levity for my partner and I while we were both stressed about about other things. It's not particularly violent in its rhetoric, although the ableist language (and the condescension) rankles. I treated the comment as just one more piece of evidence that feminist blogging is an essential practice, and put it aside for the bigger and vastly more interesting matter of figuring out exactly how to pitch my dissertation prospectus to folks who don't care about the internet. 

But the broader phenomenon of abusive comments on feminist blogs is not something to be set aside lightly. There has been a lot of talk lately about the role of threats -- of violence, of rape, of death -- play in working to silence feminist voices in the blogosphere. S.E. Smith, in her early October post on Tiger Beatdown, describes the type of threats she receives on a daily basis as a prominent voice on a feminist blog:

All of the bloggers at Tiger Beatdown have received threats, not just in email but in comments, on Twitter, and in other media, and the site itself has been subject to hacking attempts as well. It’s grinding and relentless and we’re told collectively, as a community, to stay silent about it, but I’m not sure that’s the right answer, to remain silent in the face of silencing campaigns designed and calculated to drive us from not just the Internet, but public spaces in general. To compress us into small boxes somewhere and leave us there, to underscore that our kind are not wanted here, there, or anywhere.
*GAG GAG GLUCK* You have discovered the only vocables worth hearing from Sady’s cock-stuffed maw…die tr*nny whore…[slut walk] is a parade for people who suffer from Histrionic Personality Disorder aka Attention Whores…I know where you live, r#tard…why don’t you do the world a favour and jump off a bridge…Feminazi…
A small sampling of the kinds of things that show up in our inboxes, in comment threads, on attack websites, in things sent to our readers.
Out of this post came a Twitter hashtag, #MenCallMeThings. Feminist bloggers, tweeters, commenters and other net-inhabiting women posted their experience with harassment and threats from men, both digital and otherwise. Sady Doyle collected and categorized many of them here, and they are simultaneously completely terrifying and completely expected: you're a bitch. You're a hysterical nag. You're an ugly cunt. You're a lesbian. Your only purpose on this planet is as a hole for me to fuck. You're a bitter hag. And so on, and so forth.

When asked how she knows these comments are directed at her because she's a woman, rather than because...well, because of anything else, she writes:
What matters is not which guys said it: What matters is that, when you put their statements side-by-side, they all sound like the exact same guy. And when you look at what they’re saying, how similar these slurs and insults and threats we get actually are, they always sound like they’re speaking to the exact same woman.When men are using the same insults and sentiments to shut down women and “feminine” people, across the board, then we know what’s going on. And we know that it’s not about us; it’s about gender.
While the comment I received contains nowhere near the level of vitriol of the comments made to women who take up the cause of women online, it is part of the same larger pattern. I published this one, so that I remember that its there, and so that I can go back to it if I ever happen to forget (unlikely) that sexism exists. I won't be publishing similar comments in the future. The signal to noise ratio on the subject of feminism is already bad enough. I have enough daily reminders that sexism remains a problem -- a problem whose consequences are sometimes symbolically violent, and sometimes physically so -- without  seeing this type of abusive, misogynist comment appear in my inbox.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On the privileging of platforms

A handy-dandy Twitter link pointed me toward this post in the Economist's culture & technology blog: The secret sexism of social media. The author focuses mainly on Foursquare and other geosocial networking services. Citing a Pew study that shows twice as many men as women using these services, the author posits a few explanations (none of them particularly compelling) as to why this disparity in social media and networking user bases might exist.

While I'd be interested in knowing the answer to that particular question, the post actually started me thinking about an issue that I've kept in the back of my mind for a while: how are social media platforms gendered, and what impact does this have for research efforts and journalism that are engaged with the new media question?

A confluence of events over this past few months has me thinking about the ways that we privilege speech that happens on some online platforms over others.  Back in April, LiveJournal -- a popular blogging service -- experienced a number of serious functionality problems due to a series of distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. As an advanced skimmer of the internet, I came across a number of comments that expressed disbelief that anyone would want to take down a journalling service populated mostly by teenage girls. Fourteen year old girls writing emo poetry and Harry Potter fanfiction: this is LiveJournal in the social media imaginary.

At least, that's LiveJournal in the English-speaking, US-centric world. Elsewhere, things are understood a little bit differently. In Russia -- where SUP, the company that owns the license to LJ is located -- LiveJournal is synonymous with blogging itself. A link to an LJ in the English speaking world is a step away from the serious analysis hosted by Wordpress and TypePad; a link to an LJ in Russia can be an act of political resistance.

Similarly, there's been a lot of focus on the role that Facebook and Twitter have played in the political upheavals of the Arab Spring. I've already linked to a few pieces on the subject (Clay Shirky at Crooked Timber, and that Malcolm Gladwell piece everyone and his mother linked to from the New Yorker), but there is a imperialist undertone to the notion that the uprisings could not have occurred without these social media platforms. By placing US-centric, English language platforms at the center of reportage on Middle Eastern unrest, we colonize the revolutions and claim them as victories of our own. Look at these tools of freedom we have created, we say, pointing towards our own techno-social accomplishments and feeling heroic that we provided such a space. This not only elides the fact that a significant proportion of political organizing outside the Western world happens outside of the services that we are most familiar with, but also diminishes our understanding of the relationship between online communication, political action, and information sharing outside the confines of those platforms we've deemed to be 'important'. South Korea faced virtually-organized anti-government protests in 2008 not because of Facebook, but because of message board fan communities for popular music artists. Our unrelenting focus on Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, blogs in the Wordpress genre) often directs our attention away from smaller platforms -- local and global -- where online organizing and interaction takes place.

So what does gender have to do with all of this? Well, a few different things. The gendering of social media platforms -- and websites in general -- seems to occur on two different levels. First, there is the usual "what are the demographics of the userbase" question. This one tends to be easily answered, and often skews male globally (although in North America the numbers are a lot more even). Second there is the question of which voices speak the loudest on the social media platform. Here things get a little more tricky. This year, The Week nominated one (out of eight) female bloggers for their "blogger of the year" award -- and that blogger was Digby, who doesn't actively construct a female identity online. We know that the feminist blogosphere runs a secondary parallel to the mainstream progressive blogosphere. Twitter -- when not being used for celebrity gossip (an eminently female pursuit) -- is the outlet for male dominated news outlets, mainstream or otherwise, to make their voices relevant. Facebook, though more personal and thus less likely to carry with it the gendering that comes with journalistic engagement, appears in the news as a gathering place for social movements gendered masculine by their leaders and tactics. LiveJournal, in the West, is female all the way down.

One of the difficulties of studying online social interactions in an environment where a large number of your colleagues aren't regular -- or particularly savvy -- users of the internet is that you often find yourself trying to describe the platforms you work with to individuals whose only experience with social media is Facebook and some major blogs. The question of "why this site? why this community?" tends to come up with astonishing frequency. And while colleagues of mine have no difficulty selling their peers on an ethnographic study of dying bingo halls, it's strangely difficult to convince anyone that a 1500-member, active LJ community is worth a (social scientific) look. This is obviously in part an outgrowth of the fact that it is simply too daunting a task to know which online interactions are sociologically significant -- though my tendency would be to go with "all of them", until proven otherwise. But I think there is also an element of privilege embedded in our practices of focusing our journalistic/sociological gaze on those platforms that the mainstream media finds trendy and 'important'. Too often, those communities and services are the ones that are dominated by masculine voices, leaving platforms like LiveJournal -- with it's 14-year old girls and their emo poetry -- in the abyss of the understudied and unimportant web.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Frisky: "Being drunk is a feminist issue"

Thanks to the wonderful work of the women at Shakesville, I had the glorious pleasure of reading this article over at The Frisky, the pseudo-feminist online entertainment magazine: "Girl Talk: Why Being Drunk is a Feminist Issue". Now, as a woman who likes to imbibe, ahem, now and again, I was intruiged. Why is being drunk a feminist issue? The Frisky's Kate Torgovnik gives us an answer: it's because it makes us more likely to get raped.

Wait, what?

According to Torgovnik, she's just saying what many of us out here in femiblogoland are too afraid to say: "what if [a rape victim] had recognized she was getting drunk, slowed down, and had a few glasses of water before leaving that bar in that cab?" Well, what if? Sure, she could have not been raped. Or she could have. She could also have been blackout drunk and not been raped. The only difference in any of these scenarios is the presence of a rapist.

The problem here, as with most mainstream coverage of sexual assault, is that the question of why rape occurs is answered by looking at the woman's behaviour. She was drunk; she wasn't dressed properly; she was alone; she was out at night. The thing is, plenty of women are simultaneously all of these things every day, and they aren't victims of sexual assault. The difference isn't in the behaviour of the women -- the difference is that there is a man around who sees a girl who is completely hammered and thinks that she's an appropriate sexual conquest.

On top of all of this, Torgovnik makes what could generously be called interesting use of rape statistics to make her point. From the article:
In 47% of reported rapes (and I’m talking in this essay about heterosexual rape with female victims, though of course many other types exist), both the victim and the perpetrator had been drinking. In an additional 17%, the perpetrator only was intoxicated and in 7% of cases on top of that the victim only was tipsy.
After starting the article out with an anecdote where she makes the assumption that two dressed up drunk girls on the subway are likely to be assaulted before the night is out, the inclusion of these statistics makes it seem like those 47% of reported rapes are happening when women leave parties and then drunk rapists, I don't know, jump out of the bushes or drag them down an alleyway or something of the sort. This is simply not the case. As Melissa McEwan of Shakesville notes:
1. Asserting that women can avoid rape via sobriety only makes sense if the victim is drunk in the vast majority of rapes. That is not the case. 
2. Asserting that women can avoid rape via sobriety only makes sense if the vast majority of women who drink are raped as a consequence. That is not the case. 
3. Asserting that women can avoid rape via sobriety only makes sense if every rape that happens to a woman who's been drinking is committed by an opportunistic rapist who would not have otherwise raped her. That is not the case.
As she concludes: "The ultimate value of this advice to potential rape victims is thus negligible, given that, in practical terms, it boils down to: 'If you don't drink, it may or may not protect you from getting raped in some situations'."

Articles like this, while putting on a feminist face of about "becoming empowered" by restricting our leisure activities, contribute to a culture of violence where women's security of the person is considered violable if she doesn't act the right way or do the right things. In order to develop a truly feminist discourse about rape prevention, we need to direct our attention and advice to the group of people who are responsible for sexual violence: the rapists (or potential rapists) themselves. Articles like the one at The Frisky -- or almost every article published on the subject of sexual violence, in the abstract or the particular -- need to take responsibility for placing the focus on the perpetrator, rather than the victim. Handy feminist pro-tip: if you're publishing an article about rape that talks about the "injustices perpetrated against women" or about how women who do certain things are more likely to "get raped", take a look at whether or not you're asking yourself the question -- by whom? Who is perpetrating the injustices? Who is committing the sexual assault? If your article doesn't answer that question, it might be time to take another look.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Hip is a romantic idea, not a catalogue of facts."

From John Leland's Hip: The History:
 ...hip tells a story of black and white America, and the dance of conflict and curiosity that binds it. In a history often defined by racial clash, hip offers and alternative account of centuries of contact and emulation, of back-and-forth. This line of mutual influence, which we seldom talk about, is not a decorative fillip on the national identity but one of the central, life-giving arteries. Though the line often disappears in daily life -- through segregation, job discrimination and the racial split in any school cafeteria -- it surfaces in popular culture, where Americans collect their fantasies of what they might be. The center of American culture runs through Mark Twain and Louis Armstrong, and it is imposible to imagine either's work without both African and European roots. Born in radically different circumstances and separated by history, they have as much in common with each other as with their peers from what either might call the ancestral homeland. Both are classicists and bluesmen, masters of language, breakers of the rules that would hold them apart. What they have in common is hip.
For better and worse, hip represents a dream of America. At its best it imagines the racial fluidity of pop culture as the real America, the one we are yearning to become. As William Burroughs said, revolution in American begins in books and music, and then waits for political operatives to "implement change after the fact". At its worst, hip glosses over real division and inequity, pretending that the right argot and record collection outweigh the burden of racial history. White hipsters often use their interest in black culture to claim moral high ground, while giving nothing back...Really that high ground lies elsewhere. Hip can be a self-serving release from white liberal guilt, offering cultural reparations in place of the more substantive kind. This is white supremacy posing as appreciation. Neither of these verdicts on hip is strong enough to cancel the other out. Hip serves both functions: it is an ennobling force that covers for ignominy. Steeped in this paradox, it tells a story of synthesis in the context of separation. Its metier is ambiguity and contradiction. Its bad is often good.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Quick Hits: I have no internet edition

    What about the people or organizations who have trouble with this concept—such as what happened with Warner Brothers when it started sending cease-and-desist letters to kids who posted Harry Potter fan fiction online? "For entertainment corporations, the lesson should be obvious: don’t threaten a bunch of Web-savvy teens who’ve done nothing wrong. The bigger lesson is, don’t attack the audience for trying to connect with a story you hold the rights to."
  • N+1, fast becoming one of my favourite reviews, has a piece on the devaluing of the humanities in the American university's push toward a neoliberal model of higher education. I'm a fan of Nussbaum and Menand's writing (although not always their conclusions), and this article makes me want to pick up all three books it reviews:
    The budding graduate student has no Paper Chase, no ER, no thrilling fantasy of the intellectual rigors and erotic enticements of professional initiation that would mitigate the shame involved in gaining entry (or re-entry) to middle-classness. Even the few official bureaucratic hoops of a doctoral student — the oral exams, the reading lists — are anticlimactic, presented with a dully comforting reassurance that they’re not really all that frightening. And of course the stories of unpaid rent, half-employment, and the neo-Victorian social struggles of men and women past their first youth have no glamour about them. What is left is a culture of defensive shame: shame about so many things, but mostly about the tremendous gap between exalted goals and humble everyday routines.
I've been in transit the last week or so -- moving into a new apartment -- and have been without internet. This has left me with lots of time to blog and no medium to blog with. Lengthier updates returning soon!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The politics and aesthetics of steampunk

In a recent fit of rampant websurfing -- signing up for Twitter has made me infinitely more aware of just how much there is to read out there -- I came across James Bridle's fabulous BookTwo.org blog. As a recent owner of a Kindle (but an eternal lover of the printed page) I've been looking for some interesting thinking about the changing nature of information and materiality. But while there will be more on that subject in future posts, it was a series of posts by Bridle about 'bookfuturism' on HiLobrow that initially caught my eye.

In the second post, Bridle discusses the politics (or lack thereof) in steampunk. Having spent much of March following the conflict that ensued after steampunk magazine Gatehouse Gazette published its "Victorientalism" issue -- and yes, that is exactly as bad as it sounds -- the relationship between the the aesthetics of nostalgia and the politics of social history has been on my mind. From N. Ottens' "In Defense of Victorientalism":

[Issue #11 of the Gatehouse Gazette was written] to redeem, if only for a moment, if only in the space between our computer screens and our imagination, the inaccurate, the imperfect and the improper but the oh so romantic and beguiling fantasy that was Asia before we actually knew it. 
Is this disdainful and snobbish and patronizing? Perhaps. But then, isn’t all of steampunk? We blissfully reminiscence about imperial grandeur, shuffling aside the slavery, the segregation, the tyranny and the bloodshed there were also part of it. We are only too willing to recreate, in our writings and in our costuming, the tastes and sensibilities of the Victorian upper class, ignoring, very often, the misery of the poor and the desolation of the oppressed. Is it obnoxious? Probably. Is it offensive? No. Because steampunk is fiction, not research. 
As much as the average steampunk enthusiast doesn’t pretend to fully nor faithfully reconstruct the past, Victorientalism makes no claim at objective study of Asian cultures. Ay-leen believes that there would be no problem, “if the political and social effects of Orientalism were dead and gone,” but should we feel embarrassed for telling certain stories and enjoying a distorted nostalgia because there are still plenty of xenophobic imbeciles out there who might think we’re serious? Surely not!
This argument -- that reveling in the aesthetics of an era does not mean embracing the unsavory politics of that very same -- doesn't hold water. The forcible severing of politics and aesthetics in the essay leaves much to be desired; we know from Said's Orientalism (at the very least) that this particular Gordian knot is not an easy one to cut. The enjoyment of this 'distorted nostalgia' for a vision of the world that did not only appear in books and stories, but was also actively used to marginalized and oppress should be something that gives us pause.

On the other side of the discussion, is sci-fi author Charles Stross' objection to the recent influx of steampunk into the SFF sections of bookstores nationwide. His essay, 'The Hard Edge of Empire' starts out with the somewhat off-putting claim that there's too much steampunk these days, but quickly abandons that tack for the more compelling argument that the aesthetics of early industrial modernity in fiction often overlook their genesis in an era that was not particularly pleasant for the majority of its inhabitants. After spending the weekend reading George Orwell's harrowing The Road to Wigan Pier and Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills, I'm inclined to agree. From Stross' essay:
You probably think I'm going a little too far in my blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun. But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like? 
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage... It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. 
The question here is not whether or not we should be writing science fiction that has steam-powered computers in a Dickensian other-London, but whether or not our fiction should have to deal with the socio-economic ramifications of the industrialism from whence the draws its taste for clockwork and brass. The best steampunk stories at least tangentially touch on the question of where the resources that produce the steam come from.

This valorization and aestheticization of nostalgia doesn't exist solely in the realm of genre fiction. Television, film, fashion, and music have all gone gaga for times past in recent years. But genre fiction, which so often holds up a mirror to contemporary society and demands that we take a good hard look at the way things are, has an unique opportunity in steampunk. Situated within a literary tradition where world-building is often (almost) as important as character development and plot, steampunk writers -- and the retrofuturists who poach from them -- have the chance to perform an autopsy on the socio-political birth of technological modernity. Moreover, they have the opportunity to re-envision industrialism in such a way as to make evident the ways in which the 'oh so romantic and beguiling' fantasies of Victorian imperialism, class hierarchy, and colonialism are deeply and directly implicated in our contemporary moral and social imaginations. To engage uncritically with the legacy of this era, and instead reduce it to an apolitical aesthetic to be spray-painted on science fiction at will is not only missing an opportunity to use science fiction to its full critical potential -- it also continues a narrative in which the erasure of the labouring bodies behind technological advancements is par for the course, both in genre fiction and outside of it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Grain & Gram

Check out these beautiful photographs from Grain & Gram's interview with specialty denim maker Roy Slaper:

Grain & Gram, 'the new gentleman's journal', chronicles the handiwork of craftsmen who work in the arts and crafts tradition of yesteryear -- making beautiful things out of wood, fabric, metal, and other materials. The images and interviews evoke another time, focusing on material creativity and the manipulation of tangible object by skilled and self-taught hands. It's a vision of masculinity that playfully combines historically-specific ideas about men who 'work with their hands' with a nostalgic aesthetic that yearns for a pre-digital era. Definitely worth a glance or two on a Sunday evening.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quick Hits: Getting back in the blogging game edition

  • A great video from the Guttmacher Institute on the facts about abortion in the United States. That abortion is primary health care for women should be uncontested -- that it remains contested is often the result of the spread of misinformation over facts, which is why interventions like this are so valuable:

  • A great little piece in the New York Times about the history of book branding. I'm a geek for little facts about things I love -- hearing that Walt Whitman wrote his own glowing, anonymous reviews warms the cockles of my bibliophile heart.
  • Michael Chabon is writing the introduction to Knopf's 50th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth. When I was a kid, my dad used to read out loud to me and my brother in the evenings; Norton Juster's whip-smart children's classic was one of our all time favourites. Chabon's introduction is excerpted in the New York Review of Books, and well worth the read.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates has become a mainstay of my RSS feed (if the NYT is looking for someone to replace Bob Herbert, I think he'd be an excellent choice. Here he argues that the American Civil War wasn't tragic -- at least, not in the way it is often portrayed.
  • Margaret Atwood on tweeting: "So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signaling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do". Speaking of which, Textual Relations is now on Twitter! I don't think I've quite got the hang of this tweeting thing yet, but practice makes perfect, right?
  • I'm not usually one for network analysis, but Kieran Healy, writing for Crooked Timber, points out an article in the New Left Review that uses network methods to look at classic literature. That's something I can definitely get behind.
  • Critical interventions in Ursula K. LeGuin, including a great short essay by LeGuin herself on American SF and the Other: "I think it's time SF writers—and their readers!—stopped daydreaming about a return to the Age of Queen Victoria, and started thinking about the future. I would like to see the Baboon Ideal replaced by a little human idealism, and some serious consideration of such deeply radical, futuristic concepts as Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. And remember that about 53% of the Brotherhood of Man is the Sisterhood of Woman."

In the past two weeks I've: finished my grading, submitted my grades, finished a paper, said goodbye to my lovely American friends, and moved to Halifax for the summer. In light of all of that, my blogging brain needs to be rekindled a little. So I'm taking suggestions -- what would you like to see me blog about?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gone Grading

Sorry for the lack of posts in the past few weeks. It's the most wonderful time of the year -- grading season. So enjoy the comic and come back in a week for more thoughts on sociology, bibliophilia, feminism, etc!

Monday, April 11, 2011

On books and reading

Today I came across two different (or maybe the same) ideas about reading, by two very different authors coming from two very different places. The first is from Italo Calvino, and it reminds me of every trip I've ever made to a used bookstore:
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out: 
the Books You've Been Planning Top Read For Ages,
the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread and the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.
Dawn Treader Bookshop, one of my favourite bookstores in the world.
 The second is from Nick Hornby, from his preface to Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, and informs all of my book choices that aren't directly necessary for school-related reading:
But what's proper? Whose books will make us more intelligent? Not mine, that's for sure. But has Ian McEwan got the right stuff? Julian Barnes? Jane Austen, Zadie Smith, E. M. Forster? Hardy or Dickens? Those Dickens readers who famously waited on the dockside in New York for news of Little Nell -- were they hoping to be educated? Dickens is Literary now, of course, because the books are old. But his work has survived not because he makes you think, but because he makes you feel, and he makes you laugh, and you need to know what is going to happen to his characters...How much cleverer will we be if we read Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck's beautiful, simple novella? Or Tobias Wolff's brilliant This Boy's Life, or Lucky Jim, or To Kill a Mockingbird. Enormous intelligence has gone into the creation of all of theses books, just as it has into the creation of the iPod, but the intelligence is not transferable. It's there to serve a purpose.
But there it is. It's set in stone, apparently: books must be hard work; otherwise they're a waste of time. And so we grind out war through serious, and sometimes seriously dull, novels, or enormous biographies of political figures, and every time we do so, books come to seem a little more like a duty, and Pop Idol starts to look a little more attractive. Please, please, put it down.
...reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing. I don't mean we should all be reading chick lit or thrillers (although if that's what you want to read, it's find by me, because here's something else no one will ever tell you: if you don't read the classics, or the novel that won this year's Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do); I simply mean that turning pages should not be like walking through thick mud. The whole purpose of books is that we read them, and if you find you can't, it might not be your inadequacy to blame. 
And, finally, in the words of Cory Doctorow:
We are the people of the book. We love our books. We fill our houses with books. We treasure books we inherit from our parents, and we cherish the idea of passing those books on to our children...We know our tribespeople when we visit their homes because every wall is lined with books. There are teetering piles of books beside the bed and on the floor; there are masses of swollen paperbacks in the bathroom. Our books are us. They are our outboard memory banks and they contain the moral, intellectual, and imaginative influences that make us the people we are today.
Some days other people's words are better than my own. Today was one of those days.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Cultural histories of the computer: The Closed World, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, and The Net Effect

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America by Paul Edwards
From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner
The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet by Thomas Streeter

One of my intellectual bugaboos is the frequency with which books about the internet are written without regard to the history of the computer as a cultural artifact. Reading about about online communication without knowing about what computers have represented throughout the past century feels like jumping into a movie during the last ten minutes -- exciting things might be happening, but it's really difficult to piece out exact what's going on. Fortunately, there are three books out there that, when read in tandem, provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the major threads that make up the cultural history of computing in the United States.

The first is Paul Edwards' engaging and influential (both Turner and Streeter cite Edwards in their own books) The Closed World. Eschewing the traditional methods of the history of technology, Edwards' work emphasizes the ways in which computers functioned as both cultural metaphors and political icons. Moving beyond the question of what computers have actually accomplished as devices -- questions well-covered in other books -- he instead focuses on the influence of the rise of computing on our understanding of human subjectivity, in the context of the American political imagination during the Cold War.

Divided into two parts, Edwards takes up the notion that computers as metaphors, as well as artifacts, to draw together two apparently unconnected histories: that of military computing during the Cold War (his exploration of the SAGE computerized air defense system is particularly compelling), and that of cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Making use of the notions of cyborg discourse and closed-wold discourses, he argues that:
...just as political theory has played a crucial part in constructing political subjects, cognitive theories and computing machines assisted in constructing the subjects who inhabited the electronic battlefields of global cold war. Interpreting human minds as information processing machines, cyborg discourse created subject positions within a political world enclosed by computer simulation and control...It collaborated in the creation of powerful closed world metaphors, analyzing the mind as a closed control system subject to technical manipulation.
This language of the closed world and technical control and manipulation provides the central topic of The Closed World. Here we have a vision of the development of computing technology and computational metaphors directed toward the command-and-control mentality of Cold War America. The sensation described by the members of the Berkeley Free Speech movement -- one of the transformation of the self into data on an IBM card -- was, in part, a reaction to this vision of closed world ideology of computing.

It is here where Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture picks up the narrative. Rather than focusing on the large-scale computing done by the military-industrial complex, Turner turns his gaze on Stewart Brand and the first wave of digital utopians -- those individuals who looked at computers and saw not only opportunities for more precise control, but also expansive possibilities for a more democratic society.

Turner’s book provides a narrative that winds from Sproul Plaza at a radicalized 1968 Berkeley through Silicon Valley in the networked nineties, stopping briefly to examine a host of socio-cultural events that provide the backdrop to the emergence of the Information Age. Exploring the evolution of the computer as a metaphor simultaneously with the emergence of information networks both on- and offline, Turner provides a meticulous account of the way computers and culture work to co-constitute one another. Furthermore, From Counterculture to Cyberculture contributes a unique and, up to this point, unparalleled, history of digital utopianism as a cultural philosophy. While there are many books available -- Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital is probably the flagship work of the particular genre -- that provide excellent examples of what digital utopianism looks like (in both its positive and negative forms), Turner’s is one of the first to actually take this movement seriously as a historical subject.

Drawing a line from Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters to the rise of the personal computer is a daunting task, but one Turner manages with aplomb. Working against Cold War visions of massive computers doing command-and-control work, countercultural technologists re-imagined computers as tools for personal liberation, locations for virtual alternative communities, and the site of exploration of both social and technological frontiers. That this movement culminated in the founding of Wired magazine is no surprise.

In the end, Turner writes:
Thanks in no small part to Brand's work at the Whole Earth Catalog and later at Rolling Stone, desktop computers had come to be seen as 'personal' technology. In keeping with the New Communalist ethos of tool use, they promised to transform individual consciousness and society at large. Thanks to the citizens of the WELL, computer-mediated communication had been reimagined in terms of disembodied, communal harmony and renamed virtual community. Cyberspace itself had been reconfigured as an electronic frontier.
 But Turner goes on:
Even as they decoupled computers from their dark, early 1960s association with bureaucracy, then, Brand and the Whole Earth community turned them into emblems not only of New Communalist social ideals, but of a networked mode of technocratic organization that continues to spread today. In that way, they helped transform both the cultural meanings of information and information technology and the nature of technocracy itself.
So where, ultimately, do these counter-narratives of the emergence of computers and computational metaphors leave us? This is where Thomas Streeter's The Net Effect begins. Published just this past December, Streeter's work carries the cultural history of computers into the Internet age. Where The Closed World ends with only a general nod toward the Internet, and From Counterculture to Cyberculture devotes a chapter to 'the triumph of the network mode', The Net Effect takes up the Internet as its primary subject of analysis.

Streeter embeds his discussion of the cultural history of the Internet squarely between the closed world logic embraced by Edwards' military-industrial complex and the new communalist utopianism engaged in by Turner's techno-hippies. The Internet, he argues, is best understood as a negotiation between our cultural tendency to romanticize 21st century technologies, and the requirements of neoliberalism in a global economy. Here is a story in which neither the virtual world is neither a virtual paradise nor an electronic battleground -- it is instead a social site, like many others, where individuals and communities struggle over meaning when confronted with situations previously unimaginable.

The time spent by Streeter on the development of cyberlaw and the open source movement are particularly enlightening. With the advent of the microchip -- previous to the widespread use of the internet -- capitalism enters the narrative for the first time. By the time the internet is a household name, neoliberal ideology had crept into the digital utopianism of the Steward Brand era. Open source programmers, hackers, moving away from the countercultural ethos of the new left, embraced a romantic individualism that could just as easily work in service of capitalist economic projects as against them. But Streeter's book is not a polemic against the integration of the market and the net. Rather, it is a skillful exploration of the ways in which the narrative threads picked up by Edwards and Turner have been entangled in recent decades. Taken on it's own, The Net Effect is an interesting book about American cultural ideologies of romantic individualism, applied to the net. Taken as a contribution to a historical-theoretical tradition that begins with The Closed World, however, and Streeter's work becomes an important piece of the cultural history of computing puzzle.

For anyone with the time and the inclination to think about what computers mean for culture (and what culture means for computers) in contemporary American life, I highly recommend adding these three books to your summer reading list. If you're a geek for cultural studies, technological history, and, of course, computers, you won't regret it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Toward a future of whatever

Thanks to a well timed pointer from one of my professors, I happened across this lecture from Kansas State anthropology professor Michael Wesch:

There's a lot of interesting things going on in this talk: questions about identity and authenticity, connection and constraint, anonymity and confession. Most of the talk revolves around YouTube -- particularly video bloggers -- but there's also some thinking about disengagement and trivialities in the context of our current media environment. It's got a touch of the ol' digital utopianism, but I always prefer that to the "the Internet is destroying identity/community/the social world" dytopic view, as well as to the "it's just YouTube, what does it matter?" take.

It also began with one of my favourite bits of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. I've got some problems with the way Postman confronted technology in some of his later work, but I think he was spot on here, in the introduction to that book:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would been no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.' In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
The necessity of a critical understanding of new media for social life is embedded in this tension. We have seen, over the past few months, what it looks like when government shuts down access to the internet -- an Orwellian tale. What we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of is the question of what the internet means for individualism in a liberal capitalist society. Professor Michael Wesch is working on it. If all goes well, I hope to be working on it too.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Exhibit A: Pixar and Studio Ghibli

As someone who enjoys a good heartwarming fantasy adventure story, I've got a special place in my heart for two of the most innovative and artful film studios currently working: Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Both studios have produced some of the most beautiful, challenging, and emotionally relevant films of the past two (and a bit) decades, and both are in part defined by their mission to take family-oriented fare more seriously than the majority of production companies seem to. But, after a month of watching Ghibli films every Thursday night, I noticed something interesting about the main characters in their films.

Pixar films from the top left: Toy Story, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up
Ghibli films: Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,
Princess Mononoke, and Howl's Moving Castle
Spot the difference yet? If you said "the gender of the main characters", give yourself a pat on the back.

Pixar has been criticized a number of times for not featuring female main characters in their films (The Incredibles and Toy Story 2 come the closest, but even in these films the women & girls play backup to the male characters). Ghibli productions, on the other hand, place girls front and centre -- even Princess Monoke and Howl's Moving Castle, which have male co-leads, feature strong, capable women. Moreover, the girls in Studio Ghibli films break out of the traditional Disney princess model for female characters. Miyazaki populates his films with tomboy-ish young girls, feisty old women, feral warriors, and yes, even a fully-realized princess who saves her people from certain destruction.

Both Pixar and Studio Ghibli have taken the animated family film to new artistic heights; neither studio tells stories that are primarily romances, and both combine terrific adventure and gentle good humor with masterful art design and an emotional maturity often lacking from movies aimed at children (or adults for that matter). But as much as I love Pixar and the films they produce, it would be nice to see them take a page out of Studio Ghibli's book and put a female character front and center. The success of Miyazaki's films in both Japan and North America show that there's a market for these stories. The addition of a heroine to the Pixar roster would be a mark that the studio can be innovative both artistically and socially, inside and outside the studio.

Edit: Not ten hours ago, The Mary Sue posted concept art from Pixar's upcoming original production, Brave. The best part? It's the first of Pixar's films to star a female protagonist. Here's to Pixar entering their third decade by turning over a new leaf on gender.

I would also be remiss if I left out a recommendation for the indie animated flick The Secret of Kells. Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon's beautiful film was nominated for Best Animated Picture at the 2010 Academy awards, and featured two equally well drawn leads -- monk-in-training Brendan and the enchanting wolf-girl, Aisling. Their upcoming Song of the Sea promises to be an equally lovely addition to the animated family film wall of fame:

Song Of The Sea - Conceptual Trailer from Cartoon Saloon on Vimeo.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Paul Fusco's legacy of Chernobyl

[Warning: The link that is central to this post contains disturbing and challenging photographs of children suffering from the fallout of Chernobyl.]

Paul Fusco, 1997. Prypait, Ukraine.

At the always stunning Magnum In Motion, a photo essay (with accompanying narration) by Paul Fusco on the legacy of Chernobyl in Belarus. I saw this photo essay earlier in the week, and I have still can barely find words to describe it. It is terrifying, macabre, and shockingly important. Fusco takes his camera into orphanages, children's cancer wards, and the Novinki Children's Mental Asylum to document the lasting effects of the 1986 disaster. The results are among the most harrowing images I have ever encountered. As the introduction to the essay states: "Fusco's work forces us to remember an important nightmare that we would forget at the peril of our morality and our future."

I have no words beyond that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Internet and 'real life'

This post is meant as a short addendum to my previous post on sociology's problems in dealing with social interaction in virtual settings.

One of the things that often comes up in discussions among sociologists about the internet and online communities is when online events become 'real' events. For some sociologists, this crossover occurs when bullying moves from online to offline, when social movements that are organizing on Twitter make it into the streets, or when people looking for health information online take that information to their doctors' waiting room. For those of us who take the internet seriously as a realm of social interaction, all online events are real events.

About a year ago, Megwrites posted an excellent piece on the internet as real life. One of the many important points she makes is that judging the 'realness' of an action by its location in the physical world, rather than online, has the effect of creating a hierarchy of action that systematically privileges those people with the financial, emotional, social, and physical resources to engage in particular offline activities at particular times and in particular places. The "I didn't see you at the protest" phenomenon is one that assumes that the most valuable contribution to social justice work that any individual can make is to put their specific body in a specific place. If that place is not welcoming or unsafe for the individual for any of a number of reasons, their ability to register 'real' discontent is muted.

This is not to say that everything that goes on in online spaces is momentous or important. I feel just as comfortable acknowledging the existence of slacktivism on Facebook as I do the community-changing conversations that have happened in multiple online communities over the years. But slacktivism exists everywhere, online and off. Moreover, people's daily lives are a mixture of momentous and not-so-momentous events. That some of us kill time looking at LOLcats or watching mashups on YouTube is not phenomenally different than sitting around drinking beer and ranking sci-fi films or recipes or football players with your friends. The thing is, all of these activities -- online and offline, important and frivolous -- are real. People spend time on them, enjoy them, participate in them, and share them with others. The internet is not a separate sphere of the universe that we interact with, outside of the social context of our everyday lives. it is a part of that context. It would be helpful if we could start treating it that way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The public purchase of sociological stories, part II: Internet edition

Back in October, I wrote a piece lamenting the seeming inability of sociology to make its disciplinary perspective compelling to the general public. At the time, I was writing about evolutionary psychology's dominance in popular press stories about gender, but the issue has popped up in another area recently, one that's near and dear to my own research. That's right folks, I'm talking about the Internet.

The number of pop science/business/cultural studies books that have come out on the subject of the Internet in the past few years has been staggering. Off the top of my head, we've got Nick Carr's The Shallows, Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation, Evengy Morozov's The Net Delusion, Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, Johnathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet; and How to Stop It, Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital, Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants, and John Palfrey & Urs Gasser's Born Digital. Now, some of these books are better than others, and the perspectives they offer tell valuable stories about the way the Internet is changing human life. But if you look at the authors listed, not a single one of them is a (working) sociologist. There are business consultants, psychologists, veterans of Silicon Valley utopianism, computer scientists, law professors, and journalists. But there's not a single sociologist up there.

This is not to say that there isn't some great internet research out there being done by sociologists. There is. But this hasn't translated into sociologists being asked to give TED talks on the future of social interaction online, and it hasn't led to the social/cultural studies section of your local bookstore being flooded with crossover books by academics who are investing in doing a more public sociology. The last time I saw a sociologist (actually two sociologists) cited in a tech-oriented article in the New Yorker, it was in a Malcolm Gladwell penned piece on social media and revolutions, and they were social movements scholar Doug McAdams, and network theorist Mark Granovetter. Not to begrudge the usefulness of either scholar's work in understanding social change sparked by social media, but I've never seen a sociologist cited when "the Internet is bad for your social life" comes up for the millionth time.

On the subject of online interaction, we're once again dropping the public sociology ball. By evacuating the public forum when it comes to the Internet, we've leaving the field to neuro-psychologists who want to talk about "re-wiring the brain" and business people who want to know how better to promote their brand on Twitter. We've got law professors writing books not only on the response of the legal system to the problems posed by the Internet (of which there are many), but also publishing on the subject of what online communication means for social life. What we don't have is a proliferation of solid, meaningful interpretive research on social life on the Internet. I don't know if this is because, as a discipline, we still prefer to treat text as artifact, rather than action, or because we can't find a way to talk about online activity that doesn't have major offline consequences in a way that makes it seem important.

Whatever the problem is, we should get over it, and quick. The internet has played a defining role in the social lives of millions for almost two decades. I got Facebook when it was first made available to Canadian university students, in 2005; my younger cousins got Facebook when they were eight. And from the time I was thirteen until today, I've watched online communities blossom and wither, morph into offline organizations or maintain their virtual character. I've seen entire communities pick up and switch mediums when the Usenet infrastructure got too outdated. I've seen people get excited about blogs and about Second Life, about Facebook and Twitter, and about forums that allow threaded comments. But I don't see a lot of solid sociological research on any of these things, with perhaps the exception paid to the Internet by network sociologists (and we all know how I feel about the dominance of that particular methodology).

We need new and better sociological concepts to deal with the contexts of virtuality. We need a new approach to text, one that treats it as something other than an inert data resource. We need a new approach to space and place, one that allows us to talk about these things without reference to geographic clustering. We need to rethink our privileging of face-to-face relationships in our research, and of methodologies that embed and perpetuate that privileging. But mostly, we need to stop talking about what people do online as though it isn't real. Human beings spend hours of their lives interacting with cultural artifacts, bureaucratic institutions, entertainment and news media, economic and health information, and yes, even each other online. Just because they do it on a computer instead of in the public square doesn't make it any less real or any less meaningful. The sooner sociology takes that seriously, the better. Because otherwise, we'll be letting slip the opportunity to expand the boundaries of our discipline in a way that is not only relevant to the ASA come conference time, but also to the public at large all the time. To reach for that most common of sociological cliches, C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, argues that the task and promise of sociology is to allow us to grasp the relation of history and biography in society. If we relegate online life to the realm of biography alone and thus abandon it to psychologists and business journalists, we are missing out on the opportunity to contribute knowledge in an area where we are uniquely qualified to speak: that of human social interaction and meaning-making. Personally, I'd like to hear what we have to say.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Perfectly good guitar: on growing up acoustic

About a month ago, I took my dad out to see Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt in concert together at the Michigan Theater.  One of the things I'm most happy to share with my dad is a love of music; it's something he instilled in me when I was very young, and something that we've maintained to this day. We share playlists, put albums on for one another, and generally act like the the music nerds we are.

My dad was never a musician. He's fifty-two now, and my brother and I--with my mother's help--just bought him his first guitar this past Christmas. Despite this, I grew up in a musical household. I have very few memories that aren't colored with one tune or another. When we weren't listening to the B-Sides of handmade tapes or newly purchased CDs, we were listening to my dad whistle his way around the house, occasionally breaking into nonsense Italian for a bit of pseudo-opera. It's not that my dad couldn't have been a musician--he has a lovely voice and a good ear for pitch--but music in our house wasn't homemade, at least not until my brother and I started piano lessons. Instead, we cultivated what could be called the art of the mental mixtape, collecting songs here and there and forming them into the soundtrack of our lives.

The CD collection amassed by my father tended to be unconstrained by genre or time period. You're as likely to find yourself listening to the Brandenburg Concertos as you are to Miles Davis, or The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen or the Be Good Tanyas. I grew up listening to a lot of music, some of which has found its way back to me over the years. My taste has dovetailed with my father's since high school -- after I got my very brief punk phase out of my system -- and I've revisited a lot of the music of my youth (which is not to say it's particularly youthful music) since then. These days, my dad's got a lot of alt-country and Americana on rotation, and I picked up on that right quick. We don't argue about what to listen to in the car -- when it's not the CBC, it's a mix on my iPod or his. They're usually pretty similar anyways.

About a year ago I tried to make an autobiographical playlist. I abandoned the project shortly thereafter, but there are three songs from the list that are the heart and soul of my childhood, and I've collected them here for your enjoyment:

If I was going to make one of these, today, it'd have some Blue Rodeo and some Neil Young, some Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams. It would have Melissa McLelland, and Ron Sexsmith, and Sarah Harmer, and Rufus Wainwright. And yes, a little Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt for good measure. We often think of mixtapes as things we share with friends or lovers (and I do that as well), but one of my favourite people to share music, and the pleasures that come with it, is with my Dad. He was the one who taught me that good music comes in many packages, and that the perfect pop song can contain as much enjoyment as the perfect symphony. So consider this a blog post for for him.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Quick Hits

  • Clay Shirky, writing for the always excellent Crooked Timber, on Idealism, Realism and Social Media. The post is particularly interesting to read in light of Malcolm Gladwell's pre-Tunisia, pre-Egypt piece in the New Yorker, The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. From the Shirky post: "The North African revolutions and remind us that citizens aren’t so much political or apolitical as they are politicized or unpoliticized at any given moment; even people who don’t like discussing politics in their spare time can turn out in the Tahrir Square when the serious business starts." This is an important distinction to make, and one that is too often lost in the dystopian/utopian arguments that regularly dominate discussions of the effect of the Internet on politics.
  • In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece about Lisa Nakamura's recent work on racism in gaming. Examining interaction in Lineage II, Nakamura found that female dwarf characters were popular in-game targets. The reason? Female dwarves avatars are popular among Chinese gold farmers, and those players killing them would often type anti-Chinese slurs into the public chat at the same time. "What happened was that female dwarfs become an unplayable race" in the game, Nakamura said. "They basically became a racial minority," she added, "with the same status as immigrant workers—they become a race, which is an interesting thing."
  • Chally has an interesting conversation going on over at Feministe about the ever present "where are you from" question. Starting with an exploration of the idea of 'fromness' (for lack of a better term), she moves into the more critical question of who is mostly likely to be asked where they're from, as well as who's answers are least likely to be taken seriously (hint: it's not white people).
  • S.E. Smith at Bitch Magazine wants you to think about the -isms in your feminism, particularly in relation to feminist icons. Also from Smith: why she's leaving mainstream feminism (but not the fight for women's rights), and an exploration of television before and after Sept 11.
  • From Geekosystem: the Social Science Research Council has released a study that argues digital piracy is better understood as a global pricing problem. It's nice to see a study that takes seriously the connections between economic well-being and access to software, particularly in an international way.

Finally, Textual Relations now has a Facebook page! 'Like' it to get notifications when the blog is updated, as well as other interesting tidbits from around the web.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Young Americans have sex...

...and Planned Parenthood helps them do it safely.

Feminist anxiety and anxious feminism

On International Women's Day, the Globe and Mail published an extraordinarily frustrating and glib piece by Margaret Wente, who claims that "the war for women's rights is over, and we won." While I generally try not to take to take Margaret Wente seriously on any subject at all, and setting aside for a moment the fact that by 'we' she means upper-middle class white educated straight cisgender women living in North America (a vastly small subset of women to be sure), I found the following passage from the article particularly disturbing:
I owe everything to the gutsy women half a step ahead of me who battered down the barriers so that I could have it easy.
People who persist in looking for systemic discrimination against women in (name your field here) seem more and more desperate. They may as well complain about discrimination against male kindergarten teachers. We are finally learning that equality can also mean the freedom to make different choices. 
We're often told that feminists are strong women. Women who stand on their own making choices, without fear. Women who go out and get things done and don't let the world hold them back. Sometimes I feel like that kind of woman. But often I feel like a woman who can't always stand on her own, who needs to ask for help and support, and who spends undue amounts of emotional energy just trying to make it through tasks that other people find trivial. It took me almost an entire week to fortify myself before knocking on my advisor's door to introduce myself. It took me four long years to be able to eat in restaurants without feeling the need to bolt. And it still sometimes takes every effort I can manage to get up in front of a classroom full of students and talk to them about the sociology of sex. And there's a reason for that.

I have General Anxiety Disorder. This isn't an internet diagnosis, although the web did eventually help push me into a psychiatrist's office. I have a real life, no bones about it, certifiable mental illness. And often, before I started taking medication, it sucked.

Sometimes it sucked because struggling with terror over everyday things is frustrating. Anxiety the way I feel it doesn't feel like nervousness. It doesn't go away once something's been successfully completed or after I've had a good day. It just carries forward, transferred to the next thing that my amygdala has decided is deserving of my absolute and utter attention and concern. Depending on the day, I worry about work and school, friendships and relationships, eating in restaurants, the weather, and my health. On bad days, I worry about how much I'm worrying. On really bad days, I have panic attacks that relegate me to the couch or the bed, because doing anything but sitting and thinking my way out of a spiral of unreason is too much to contemplate. Or at least that's how things used to be. Medication, along with the support of family, friends, and a wonderful partner have helped alleviate the day-to-day vagaries of not being able to manage my own brain.

But sometimes my anxiety sucks for other reasons. Sometimes, it makes me feel like a bad feminist and a bad scholar. Neither of these things are true -- I happen to think that my struggles with anxiousness make me a better feminist and a better scholar most of the time. Like any other marginalized standpoint, I often feel as though I have the opportunity to see and empathize with experiences that are overlooked by much of the population. But that doesn't always transfer to how people see me. I know this, and it frustrates me.

The idea that feminism and disability intersect is certainly not a new one. The now defunct, but always excellent, FWD/Foward (Feminists With Disabilities) is an indispensable resource for understanding the various and complex ways that feminism confronts, supports--and sometimes clashes with--the needs and experiences of women with both physical and mental impairments. But we rarely hear these issues discussed in the press.

I was lucky enough to reach the height of my anxiety in an institutional setting where the costs of my seeing a doctor at one of the best anxiety clinics in the United States are covered for me. Moreover, I am fortunate to have parents who have never been anything but supportive of my decisions, and friends who I can turn to in times of need. But that I have these reinforcements available to me is a function of my privilege. This leads me back, once again, to an argument that I have made before: that the contemporary emphasis in public life on feminism as choice, rather than as justice, is harmful to the development of a feminist politics that advances the status of all women. For those women who do not have access to the resources I do, the choice to request and receive the tools necessary to improve their quality of life is not a choice at all. Similar to the difficulties that plague the quest for reproductive justice, the staggering lack of availability of mental health resources, particularly for women in marginalized communities is a roadblock in the ongoing struggle for women's rights. Moreover, the stigma attached to mental illness of in all of its forms, but particularly those illnesses that we tend to associate primarily with women and teenage girls, is a barrier to the idea that we need to take women's experiences seriously. Not only the experiences of those women who are in a position to expend their emotional, mental, and physical energies making leaps forward in the realms of business and politics, but also those women who spend their spoons on less public, more personal struggles.

Margaret Wente's unbelievably privileged assertion that feminism is over, on top of erasing the experiences of women worldwide, also neglects the fact that free choices can only be made in the context of a just society. For those of us who face the day-to-day frustrations and, yes, anxieties, of mental illness, the implication that we should just buck up and be happy because hey, if we could just manage to set foot outside the door we could be a CEO just like anyone else on top of the ongoing conflation of feminism with ballsy choice-making is unbearably aggravating. In order to move the cause of women, as well as other marginalized groups, forward, we need a reinvigorated public discussion that acknowledges that feminism is not just for go-getters. It is for everyone. And throwing the whole thing in the dustbin only makes living in this unjust society that much more anxious for the rest of us.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Most Photographed Barn in America

Corinne Vionnet's St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow; part of Photo Opportunities, a series of images by layering 200-300 tourist of the same landmarks on top of one another.
     Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides--pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some noes in a little book. 
     "No one sees the barn," he said finally.
     A long silence followed.
     "Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
     He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated side, replaced at once by others.
     "We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
     There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
     "Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be a part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
     Another silence ensued.
     "They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
     He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers the advanced the film.
     "What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now."
     He seemed immensely pleased by this. 
          -- Don DeLillo, White Noise

I've been away from the blog for the last week or so -- reading week in sunny (har har) Halifax has had me reading Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, marathoning on the third season of Deadwood and drinking copious amounts of Propellor beer. Should be back to my regular (if it can be called that) posting schedule later in the week; upcoming subjects include the byline gender gap, popular press books that take a dystopic view of the effect of the Internet on the human mind, and what it's like to watch The Godfather a million years after everyone else has seen it. Because I just did that. At the age of twenty-four.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Quick Hits: the GOP hates women edition

The following bills have recently been put on the table (and then occasionally shelved, hallelujah) by various state and federal Republican representatives:

  • The proposed GOP budget cuts for fiscal year 2011 mean a drastic decrease in funding for domestic violence prevention programs; this includes the elimination of the Violence Against Women Health Initiative and the Engaging Men and Youth in Prevention programs, as well as a $7 million cut to Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which funds domestic violence shelters and the national hotline for domestic violence victims. 
  • The "Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act", introduced by Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) would amend the Public Health Services act to prevent any organization that provides abortions--except in cases of incest, rape, or when the woman's life is endangered--from receiving family planning grants. Under the existing Act, Title X funds are not used on abortion services, but on family planning and preventative health initiatives. The change to this act would effectively defund Planned Parenthood. The House has voted in favour of the act.
  • H.R.3 and H.R.358 are both on the table in the House. H.R.3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act", originally sought to redefine rape (this has since been removed from the bill), and strong arms insurance companies into not covering abortion services, as well as imposing a tax burden on small businesses that purchase plans that cover abortion. H.R.358, the "Protect Life Act", carries a provision that would allow health care providers to deny live-saving abortion care to women with dangerous pregnancies. It also bans insurance coverage of abortion in the new health care system.
  • The Ohio State Legislature recently tabled a "Heartbeat Bill", which would ban abortion after a heartbeat is detected in the fetus. The heart is one of the first organs to develop in a fetus, and heartbeats are detectable between eighteen days and six weeks into the pregnancy. The presence of a heartbeat does not indicate viability. If passed, the bill would likely provide an avenue for a Supreme Court challenge of Roe v. Wade.
  • Meanwhile, the South Dakota Legislature has (thankfully) shelved a bill that would have rendered as "justifiable homicide" those murders in service of protecting an unborn child. In a country that has seen the murder of abortion providers and the bombing of abortion clinics, this is clearly a concern. From the NYTimes article: "Dave Leach, an Iowa anti-abortion activist, praised the bill, saying it could end abortions in South Dakota by scaring away doctors or by establishing grounds for someone to kill those who stay.'There may be something I’m overlooking, but from all appearances, this bill would certainly justify an individual taking the life of an abortionist in order to save human lives,' he said."
  • Melissa McEwan, on the bullshit that is the anti-choice position: "No one can argue, with any honesty or credibility, that they give a fuck about the sanctity of life if they would force a woman to carry to term an unwanted or unviable pregnancy against her will. That is the opposite of a respect for life, if the definition of "life" is to have any meaning at all."